JO Chandler, The Age, June 29 2011
The myth of Climate-gate has endured because of media failings.
GEOLOGIST and long-time climate change denialist Bob Carter materialised on this page on Monday, reprising a weary routine – tiptoeing through the scientific archive to find the morsels of data that might, with a twirl here and a shimmy there, contrive to support his theory that global warming is a big fat conspiracy.
Meanwhile, in real news, the journal Nature Geoscience published a paper by American and British scientists that found West Antarctica’s Pine Island glacier is now melting 50 per cent faster than in 1994 (see below).
In an effort to better understand the hidden mysteries of ice sheet dynamics, which have obvious implications for every coast on the planet, the team also sent a submarine beneath the floating portion of the ice. It found the glacier had broken free from the ridge that once grounded it, allowing warmer waters to circulate and melt it from beneath. This had long been the theory – now they had some observed evidence.
The hastening retreats of the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers have been closely monitored by scientists for decades. Their collapse is a nightmare cited as one of the tipping-point scenarios scientists most fear – potentially pulling the plug to drain the western ice plateau, and possibly even destabilising the sleeping giant next door: the East Antarctic ice sheet.
The uncertainties of these processes are to blame for the wide, wild variations in anticipated global sea level rise – the hottest, most disputed topic in forecasts for a warmer world. So you might imagine that this latest insight would merit a mention. But it didn’t make the cut for publication in any Australian newspapers.
The murky, under-the-waterline mysteries of media dynamics are no less confounding than those determining the movement of glaciers, and no less potentially catastrophic in terms of implications for informing policy debate and climate action.
But there are no laws of physics or nature to provide a framework to explain the vagaries of the media machine, which seems utterly overwhelmed by the task of telling the story on climate science. There is, in truth, nothing very scientific about the processes that determine what makes news in this critical debate. It’s a crap shoot. Often, you get crap.
At the heart of Carter’s argument against the science is the claim that the credentials of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – and hence its authority in underpinning policy such as a carbon tax – were ”badly damaged by the leaked ‘Climate-gate’ emails in November 2009”. He’s right – terrible damage was wrought by the accusations that scientists had behaved without integrity or honesty.
What Carter fails to then mention is that, at last count, there have been eight separate inquiries by British and US government agencies, independent panels and universities. Their findings have consistently upheld the honesty and integrity of the scientists. None have identified wrongdoing, and the science was unassailed.
The great scandal of Climate-gate is the failure of the media to recognise and report the findings of these inquiries. That failure allowed the shadow of Climate-gate to endure, and it has been identified as a powerful, albeit hollow, thief of public confidence in critical, evolving science.
Climate-gate, a triumphant moment in the machinery of manufactured doubt, continues to be used to obscure where the live debate is actually occurring. If you want a taste of the fiery end of it, you might like to pay heed to a gathering in Melbourne next month of international experts contemplating a future with 4 degrees or more of warming. (fourdegrees2011.com.au)
It might be argued that the devotion of scientists to identify consensus on climate forecasts – and the sensitivity of the media to brokering anything that might be labelled alarmist – has also nobbled debate.
The valiant efforts of scientists to deliver to policymakers and the public a coherent, consensus voice on climate change moderates the messages, substituting worst-case for best-guess, itself a distortion. As veteran British climate writer Fred Pearce reflected in the wake of the 2007 IPCC report, ”some people accuse the IPCC of being alarmist. On the contrary, my reading is that [it] worked so hard to assuage the concerns of its critics that it left out all the things its authors really fear.”
Further distortions in the debate are rendered by clumsy efforts of the media to achieve ”balance”, or contrived efforts to drum up controversy. But as new Chief Scientist Ian Chubb argued last week, ”if 99 people say one thing and one person says another thing, the one person has a right to have their view on the table, but they don’t have a right to be given the same amount of time and space as the 99 without qualification”.
Recent surveys of active climate scientists (those publishing in the area) calculate that 97 in every 100 have views which reflect those of the international academies of science: the planet is warming, this is human caused, and it is dangerous. Most are unlikely to ever have the gift of this page to explain their findings.
Therefore, a more balanced, rigorous and honest rendering of their work is critical to elevating the political and public debate on climate. ”The media has a particular and important role to play,” said Chubb, ”and the sooner they play it better, the better.”
Jo Chandler is a senior writer and author of Feeling The Heat, which tracks climate science field work.